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Black Metal 101: a black metal history and discography

Updated on July 11, 2011

The Black Metal Look

Black Metal fashion sensibilities. See end of article for more on fashion.
Black Metal fashion sensibilities. See end of article for more on fashion.

Black Metal 101

The official beginning of Black Metal is Venom’s Black Metal album, circa 1982, though truth be told the music that is called black metal today arose in the early 90’s by bands influenced by Venom, Celtic Frost, and Bathory. The key element in this music was a raw sound and primitive song structures, though this was to change. Sonically, the metal music of the late eighties had an obsession with speed, and black metal was not immune to this mind set. A number of black metal bands from Norway (most notably Mayhem) began quick picking their old 80’s black metal influences and a genre was born.

The most prominent feature of black metal, as a genre, is its consistent and continuous use of quick picking or tremolo picking. It is fully featured on Mayhem’s Deathcrush (a pressing of this album was made in 1987 but quickly sold out) and all further black metal bands (by today’s definitions). The possibilities of continuous tremolo picking have created a range of sounds. On the one end, when black metal first emerged, there was an emphasis on the extremes of lo-fidelity. High volume black metal was supposed to be painful to hear. Ulver’s Nattens Madrigal is the most infamous recording in this tradition, recorded on a boom box while outside. Darkthrone is worth mentioning as well, as it has solidly maintained that lo-fidelity minimalism throughout its career. On the other hand, heavily distorted quick picking a single string allowed for a strong metal sound that still had melody, opening the door for symphonics like keyboards, and some occasional clean vocals.

Some of these symphonics were odious to some early bands nearly unlistenable to everyone but black metal fans (like me). Black metal began as an extreme movement, and like many extreme movements it reacted against its own development and popularity. For the early listeners of black metal, it was a hidden and dangerous thing, and when I say dangerous I’m not using a metaphor. Some members of the early scene committed a series of atrocious acts that brought the spotlight on the genre. While there were two grisly murders (by Varg Vikernes and by Bard Eithun) and a violent suicide by Mayhem’s vocalist Dead, the defining act of black metal musicians and their fans were church burnings.

Of course, only a small few participated, but that was enough to set off a string of church burnings in Norway, where the scene originated. It is important to put this early period in context. Black Metal, more than any other genre, is associated with Satanism. This is not the “Satanism” the religious right accuses Twisted Sister of. This is bands with members that consider themselves Satanists, and who extensively (in my view over-extensively) use Satanic ideas and imagery in their artwork and lyrics. Black metal bands want their music to sound evil (even though there’s no such thing as evil music). A number of people felt sounding evil wasn’t enough and took it upon themselves to commit acts of violence and arson.. However, the history of the genre has long shown that black metal as music has long survived without these antics.

So back to the music. Some other features of black metal is its use of blast beats (traditionally via the snare drum though that has been phased out by double-kick bass drums), and shrieking vocals. There is also extended use of minor keys. However,Tremolo picking, blast beats, shrieks and minor keys only go so far in describing this music. There is a raw beauty that just has to be heard to be appreciated. So here's where to start:  

!) Gods of Darkness compilation

This is the album I recommend you start with. It is a compilation of 15 bands, just pushing towards that 80 minute edge. Unlike most compilations it is not meant to showcase the bands for a particular record label, nor is it the choice of some out of touch music executive. The list was compiled by a metal journalist, well versed in the field, and contains as many obscurities as must have classics. My only objection is that the guy didn’t choose a better Naglfar song (track 14)

2) Nordic Metal: A Tribute to Euronymous

This is the compilation you’ll want for early black metal. It was completed shortly after the murder of Euronymous and dedicated to him. It was the first attempt to get black metal seen by a larger audience. It well captures that lo-fi tradition of black metal.


3) Darkthrone: “Transylvanian Hunger”

For those interested in the dismal and minimalistic, look no further. The title track itself features about 3 riffs in six minutes, alternating, and they all sound blacker than black.

4) Emperor: “Anthems to the Welkin at Dust”

There is simply no way of fully describing how awesome this album is. It is every bit as melodic and subtle as it is vicious and heart pounding. Heavily layered, it is capable of melding screeching vocals, ear scraping riffs, pounding drums, melodius keyboards, and intricate rhythm variations as if they were one and the same thing. If you plan to get one black metal album, this would be it.

Emperor music video the Loss and Curse of Reverance

5) Ulver: “Nattens Madrigal”

For those interested at how hideous and mind gnawing any music can ever get, I’d recommend this album. As previously mentioned this was recorded outside and is unbelievably brutal. Yet, like most black metal, it still maintains a melody

6) Cradle of Filth: “Midian”

As stated before, black metal has gone far beyond the intentions of its creators. While some traditionalists might balk at me for suggesting Cradle of Filth is a black metal band, they certainly use all the structures I’ve listed as important (the caustic melody, blast beats, and screeching vocals). I’ve heard a number of albums and I think Midian is the one I’d recommend. (though The Principle of Evil Made Flesh is probably the most badass.) You’ll note the presence of spoken parts (both male and female), clean vocals, and heavy use of keyboards. For the first time listener, this is about as “gentle” as it gets.

7) Mayhem: De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

No self respecting writer on black metal would leave out Mayhem. Mayhem’s Deathcrush is ground breaking, catchy, and incredibly awesome. The only problem is that it is 17 minutes long. De Mysteriis sees more content and is a bit blacker than Deathcrush whose songs are often too minimalist for me.

Mayhem- Freezing Moon

8) Satyricon: Nemesis Divina

This is just a solid release full of everything you’d expect from a talented black metal band: it’s combination of the raw and melodic, it’s well developed songs, and of course a downright evil sound.

9) Bathory: Blood Fire Death

This black metal is a suggestion from before the Norwegian redefinition of the term. Bathory most closely represented what was to come. Venom and Celtic Frost were influences, but the shrieking vocals and the low fidelity tradition comes straight from Bathory, a solo project of Quarthon, whose albums featured mixes from a four track. Blood Fire Death is probably the blackest album I have heard. When I listen to this music I’m plagued by the feeling that everything is black and no light will ever shine again. If that sounds like an exciting prospect you should probably buy this album

10) Firestarter (compilation): As this compilation is not a completely black metal album, I’ve saved it for last. This comp features the bands signed to Century Black. This was a sublabel of Century Media that specialized in getting obscure but important European music to the States. For those of you who don’t know, Europe has always been more open to metal than the United States. The black metal bands Satyricon, Old Man’s Child, Sacramentum, and Mayhem are among those featured, but also bands like Opeth and Katatonia. But of all, since it’s a label comp, I but this album for four dollars. It even came with a complimentary match (haha). Not everything on this album is 100%, but the comp has enough good songs so it doesn’t matter.

With the comps you should have more than enough songs to start building your black metal arsenal, if like me you never get bored listening to a new black metal

One book deserves a spot here as well, and this is Lords of Chaos: the Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind. This is a journalistic narrative of the deaths and arsons during the formative years of black metal, which gave black metal so much infamy. The book itself is the most well known book on black metal and if you ask a black metal fan they’ve either read it or know about it.

Yes, for those of you who are curious, there is going to be a movie based on Lords of Chaos. I don't expect it to be any good. For one thing, I can't see the makers of the movie creating a proper soundtrack, as black metal is among the most inaccessible genres. All the infamous figures in black metal's origin are all extremely unsympathetic. No one better embodies this than Varg Vikernes, the main character of the movie. American audiences expect to like the main character, and Varg really can't be looked at in a good light., He hasn't even made any real cotribution to black metal musically. Moreover, I know a Twilight actor is going to play a major part. Anyone not looking to butcher the story would do their best not to associate with that franchise. My suggestions are to read the book and probably ignore the soundtrack as well. I do not trust Hollywood producers to get black metal right.

A short note on fashion. Black metal musicians often dress in corpse paint, which is as simple as it sounds, make up to make the musician look as though they have risen from the grave. In my view, there are three important features of corpsepaint. One being the completely white foundation, black around the eyes to make the eyes seem very sunken in, and lipstick that puts on a permanent scowl. Often daubs of fake blood are smeared on the face. The rest of the body is to be as spiky as one can get until one's feet are in combat boots. Rounds of ammunition, are encouraged, especially in leiu of a traditional belt.


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    • profile image

      Roxie 2 years ago

      You've really helped me untesrdand the issues. Thanks.

    • starvagrant profile image

      starvagrant 5 years ago from Missouri

      @viasa: I'm not under the opinion that Dimmu Borgir is not a black metal band. I've listened to and loved the Puritania album. The thing is, every black metal band must do one thing: its main focus must be the tremolo picked/double bassed blast. It's terrible if overdone (Dark Funeral comes to mind). They way I look at it, the rest of the music is to set up for the absolute rush of the blast. Dimmu Borgir doesn't set up for its blasts. It just uses them when it wants to.

    • starvagrant profile image

      starvagrant 5 years ago from Missouri

      @viasa: I'm not under the opinion that Dimmu Borgir is not a black metal band. I've listened to and loved the Puritania album. The thing is, every black metal band must do one thing: its main focus must be the tremolo picked/double bassed blast. It's terrible if overdone (Dark Funeral comes to mind). They way I look at it, the rest of the music is to set up for the absolute rush of the blast. Dimmu Borgir doesn't set up for its blasts. It just uses them when it wants to.

    • TheHeavyReview profile image

      TheHeavyReview 5 years ago

      Great and detailed hub! I'm not as into black metal as I used to be, but I still have lots of respect for the genre. My favorite album of the black metal genre would be "Dark Medieval Times" by Satyricon. I also love Enslaved's "Frost" and Immortal's "At the Heart of Winter". Lately I've been enjoying a band called Forefather... not exactly orthodox BM but the influence is definitely there. My first black metal song was "Transylvanian Hunger".

    • yiasa profile image

      yiasa 6 years ago from Dhaka

      Well Slayer is really as band to remember all the life. However i like black metal. But i would say there are some bands for whom I dislike it too. e.g. Dimmu Borgir ( although there In Death's Embrace is awesome and the solo of A Succubus in Rapture) but Mayhem really did a lot to raise black metal so did Emperor.

    • randimr profile image

      randimr 6 years ago from Tampa, FL

      Awesome write-up! I would add dissection storm of lights bane, cradle of filth dark faery tales in phallustein, summoning minas morgul, hypocrisy 4th dimension, and the nuclear blast comp death is just the beginning 3. I've the firestarter comp for yeaaaars and it hasn't left my cars cd collection :)

      @shin: black metal has a dark beauty about it that can be surprising...definitely worth checking out!

    • Corvis profile image

      Corvis 7 years ago from Florida

      Oh yeah, Mayhem is most certainly awesome. I saw them in 2000 for the U.S. leg of the Grand Declaration of War tour. Great times.

    • starvagrant profile image

      starvagrant 7 years ago from Missouri

      I agree with you there. IX Equilibrium is Emperor's most accessible and Emperor (though I have a soft spot for Mayhem) is/was the best black metal band.

    • Corvis profile image

      Corvis 7 years ago from Florida

      I'd probably start with Emperor's "IX Equilibrium." It is a good jumping off point into Black Metal. The vocals are not too absurd, but the musicianship is there.

    • starvagrant profile image

      starvagrant 7 years ago from Missouri

      Shin, it's my belief that anyone who can handle Slayer can handle the extremities of metal. Slayer was my favorite band until I found black metal. I would admit though that the I didn't fall in love with black metal the moment I heard it. That took a few months. Even when I did get into it I went for a rum and coke mix. (Emperor as rum, Cradle of Filth as coke). Black metal takes some time getting used to. And just to make sure this is clear: Cradle of Filth is not the most representative of black metal bands. They're probably just the most accessible.

    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 7 years ago from Scotland

      Really informative Hub starvagrant

      I don't know a lot of Black Metal but I'm always interested in different metal styles. Maybe it'll be too heavy for my taste. I love bands like Slayer and Slipknot but I know they're a different genre.

      So I'll have a listen to the bands you've recommended. The only exception I'm afraid are 'Cradle of Filth', I've seen them 3 times at Festivals and could never get into them.

      All the best